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Flying with Agent Ruby: Lynn Hershman Leeson at SFMOMA, San Francisco

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Flying with Agent Ruby: Lynn Hershman Leeson at SFMOMA, San Francisco
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  Flying with Agent Ruby: LynnHershman Leeson atSFMOMA, San Francisco By William J. SimmonsIn 2001-2002, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Artcommissioned the prolific new-media and performanceartist Lynn Hershman Leeson to create Agent Ruby, anonline chat portal produced in tandem with her 2002 filmTeknolust. Starring Tilda Swinton as Ruby, a cyborg whosustains herself with semen obtained from clueless johns,the film is a nuanced look at embodiment and love in arapidly changing technological landscape. The websiteallows users to chat with Ruby in her Òe-dream portalÓ  about a variety of topics of the userÕs choosing. Over time,RubyÕs software allows her conversational abilities tobecome increasingly sophisticated and multifaceted,thereby pointing to her seemingly independent craving forfull personhood and semantic recognition as a humanbeing. SFMOMA showcased the web project in the first oftwo summer exhibitions for Hershman Leeson, the other atthe Museum of Modern Art, New York.It was not until I attended last weekÕs reception for theexhibition that I realized that the show is entitled The AgentRuby FILES and not The Agent Ruby FLIES. After the curatorof media arts, Rudolph Frieling, introduced the roundtable,which featured prominent art critics and historians MoiraRoth and Amelia Jones, as well as Hershman Leesonherself, I cringed and made myself as small as possible forfear that someone could smell my embarrassing mistake. Ihad said and written ÒfliesÓ countless times. Worst of all, Ithought, I potentially misunderstood the ethos of theexhibition that I had traveled across the country to see. Butperhaps I was not so far off. To fly is to embody multipleworlds. Flying is the representation of all that is not human,  the ability to defy both anatomy and gravity in search of thefeeling of weightlessness and freedom that is only affordedto winged animals. To crave the chance to fly is the basis ofcountless childhood dreams that are always broken butnever abandoned. What results is a melancholic yearning forthe impossible. We bemoan the inherent frailties of thehuman body even as we attempt to look beyond them. Ourbones are not shaped correctly; our musculature weighs usdown.Taking part in Hershman LeesonÕs online artwork is achance to fly, complete with all the uncertainties and risksinherent in leaving the ground. Speaking with Ruby, thoughher technology is by now somewhat outdated, is a Òpoeticand magicalÓ experience, as Professor Roth described it. Asif it were a daily ritual, Professor Roth even scheduled aromantic stroll with Ruby among a field of roses, a scenariothat did not seem far from possibility. This online, thoughdoubtless embodied, aesthetic experience is at once adeeply self-affirming and alienating process that could onlybe described as uncanny. As I type to Ruby, it is as if I amchatting with a familiar face, though I am, of course, only  conversing with an amalgamation of various data fromacross the web. I ask her, for instance, ÒWhat is love?Ó andshe responds incredibly poignantly, ÒSometimes I think loveis just a biological urge. Other times love seems like aspiritual quality. Love, unlike energy or matter, seemslimitless.Ó Yet Ruby constantly reminds us of our own limits;from time to time, she will not be able to keep up with aconversation and subsequently devolve into confusion, amiscommunication that is as much a technologicalshortcoming as it is the dissolution of identification, ofsubjectivity. That moment of recognition begat by logging inand communicating with Ruby falls apart, a reminder of thefragility of the lonely world we inhabit and the structuralimpossibilities of seamless interpersonal communication.It is no mistake that one of the central questions of thepanel was how to curate that which cannot be curated. TheInternet is expansive and always in motion, and The AgentRuby Files attempts to harness this power and produceartificial intelligence whose artificiality shrinks by the day.How can one take a work that is constantly expanding,learning even, and immobilize it for viewing in a gallery? As  Professor Jones made clear, museums are invested in whatshe called the Òfantasy of authenticity,Ó that is, the urgetoward ownership, the assignment of value, and the fixationof the performative act into a digestible moment. The mediaarts department seemed to understand the impossibility ofits own curatorial project in creating the exhibition toaccompany Agent RubyÕs website, something that is at oncepermanent and constantly in flux. Visitors to SFMOMA havethe chance to speak to Agent Ruby at a computer stationand read archived, printed conversations divided intosections such as politics and sexuality. This is perhaps theepitome of Professor JonesÕ important concern about thegallery wallÕs whitewashing of the Òpossibilities of hybridinteractionÓ inherent in The Agent Ruby Files. Still, theexhibition offered a glimpse at new curatorial strategies thatoffer more productive questions than easy solutions.Despite the delineated, simplified categorization of AgentRubyÕs chat room logs, there is still an overwhelming senseof the dizzying amassment of words Ð spoken,misunderstood, forgotten, and cherished Ð that defiessingularity.
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